Monday, August 18, 2014

Media suppression imperils Myanmar reform

YANGON - Dangling from nearly every apartment in Yangon is a thin wire, running from balcony to street level. The line serves two purposes: as a doorbell and also to collect the day's mail and newspaper.

News is a big part of the average Myanmar citizen's daily life. Over 300 newspapers and journals feed the country's seemingly insatiable appetite for news. Yet despite recent progress in press freedoms, the country's media landscape remains delicate, with previous reforms now dangling by a thread.

In July, the jailing on national security charges of five Unity Journal journalists, including the paper's chief executive, sparked an international uproar. They each received a hefty 10-year sentence for violating the 1923 State Secrets Act for publishing a report exposing an alleged secret chemical weapons factory.

Fifty local journalists who protested their incarceration have since faced freedom of assembly-related charges. This followed the very public deportation of an Australian journalist working for the once exiled anti-government Democratic Voice of Burma.

A group of journalists at the Bi Mon Te Nay news journal are being held in pre-trial detention and face criminal charges that carry potential prison terms for publishing an activist group statement that said opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had formed an interim government. They were initially charged with violating the more severe 1950 Emergency Act

This, along with new restrictions on journalist visas for international media and recent assertions made by President Thein Sein that the media has played a role in instigating recent spasms of anti-Muslim violence, have raised concerns that the once hopeful media reforms initiated in 2012 are now steadily being reversed.

Earlier allowances for greater press freedom, including an end to pre-publication censorship and the release of journalists jailed under the previous military regime, were perhaps the most visible and impactful of Thein Sein's democratic reforms.

Media reforms have been crucial in regaining the confidence of Western countries that have predicated the dropping of sanctions and restoration of aid and investment on proven progress on democracy and rights. But with the recent reversals, Thein Sein's wider liberal reform drive is now in doubt.

While the recent harassment of journalists is concerning, gauging the state of press freedom in Myanmar is complex. After decades of pro-government propaganda dispensed by state-run media, strident views and unbalanced news are still the expectation of most news consumers.

Editors of Myanmar's many weekly papers and journals, now facing competition from a handful of richly financed, often military-linked daily newspapers, are all too aware of this fact. And working with young and mainly inexperienced journalists represents an uphill battle for professionalism at most of Myanmar's news publications.

To address these shortfalls, numerous nongovernmental organizations, media groups and news agencies have recently engaged in training of local journalists. Buttressing these programs has been the establishment of new journalists associations with hundreds of members. In July, the country opened its first private journalism school, the Myanmar Journalism Institute. These programs are building local reporting capacity, but not surprisingly it is a slow process.

Despite recent government backsliding, there has been unmistakable positive change. This year Myanmar's media actually ranked ahead of regional peers Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Laos and Vietnam, according to Reporters Without Borders annual press freedom index. This is particularly notable because most Southeast Asian countries championed economic reform before undertaking social and political reforms, such as allowing for more press freedoms.

Bidding to reverse decades of negative press coverage, Myanmar is under pressure both internationally and domestically to do it all at once. That has led to the media sector's current "teething problems", as one observer of the local media characterized the transition towards a freer press.

There are also deep-seated structural flaws. Rather than a strong, independent body, the government currently acts as the media's regulator, leading to instances of abuse of power. This was evident in the government's involvement in the aforementioned recent press freedom violations.

Less overtly, the Police Special Branch called on various editors and journalists for interrogations characterized as "friendly discussions" about their news coverage in June.

This has inevitably driven many editors and journalists towards more self-censorship. The Australian editor of the Myanmar Times, Ross Dunkley, requested his staff to refrain from publishing on the plight of the country's Muslims without his prior approval, according to a widely circulated leaked internal memo. The directive was made at a time the government had accused local media of inflaming deadly communal tensions.

This month's appointment of new Minister of Information Ye Htut - the former government spokesman and Deputy Minister of Information - comes at a crucial juncture in the country's stalling reform program.

While there is little love for the often tough-talking Ye Htut among much of Myanmar's press corp, he was pivotal in less-noticed preliminary media reforms launched beginning in 2007. He is also believed to have been instrumental in convincing top military leaders of the need for a more open media landscape.

His appointment, along with a recent meeting between President Thein Sein and the journalist-led Myanmar Interim Press Council (which until now has been largely impotent), indicates the potential for a return to the previous reform course. In Thein Sein's meeting with the MPC, he called upon journalists to play a bigger role in reform and regulation, including in mediating legal disputes.

While these are positive signals, they must be backed with concrete reform actions. A free, independently regulated and professional press will be crucial for reporting on the run-up to general elections in 2015, polls that could see the Suu Kyi-led opposition win power after decades of military and quasi-military rule. At the same time, the media must uphold the highest standards of professionalism at such a crucial political juncture. If either side fails, then Myanmar's wider democratic transition could as well.

Elliot Brennan is a Non-Resident Research Fellow with the Institute for Security and Development Policy's Asia Program in Sweden. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow at Pacific Forum-Center for Strategic and International Studies (USA) and the Southeast Asia Analyst for the Lowy Institute's Interpreter Blog. He is based in Southeast Asia.

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